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USM’s Engineers Without Borders provide hot water for Guatemalan orphanage

Photo of eight students and two professional engineering mentors from the USM chapter of Engineers Without Borders. The group spent a week in Villa Nueva, Guatemala, where they installed five solar water heaters for the Hogar Rafael Ayau orphanage.

When University of Southern Maine student Hunter Wing was approached by a fellow classmate to join the university’s newly established chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) in Nov. 2014, he thought the concept was a great idea.

Two-plus years later, Wing, a junior mechanical engineering major with a minor in electrical engineering, is preparing to step down as the president of USM’s chapter of EWB after successfully leading his team in accomplishing a project some thought would be too lofty or even too dangerous to complete.

Eight students and two professional engineering mentors from the USM chapter recently returned from a week-long trip to Villa Nueva, Guatemala, where they installed five solar water heaters for the Hogar Rafael Ayau orphanage.

(VIDEO: Engineers Without Borders students discuss the solar hot water project with President Cummings)

The group not only installed a system that we often take for granted, they also prepared those on site to keep the system operating into the future.

It’s worth noting that the group completed the solar hot water project in two years -- three years ahead of schedule thanks to better-than-expected fundraising results.

Before USM’s EWB chapter embarked on the project, residents of the orphanage did not have reliable or safe access to hot water.

Wing mentioned that residents and staffers previously couldn’t wash dishes with hot water, either, posing potential sanitation issues.

To negate these problems, EWB came up with a plan to install five solar water heaters for the orphanage.

“It really is a quality of life enhancement,” said Luke Johnas, senior mechanical engineering major and the vice president of USM’s EWB chapter, of the plan.

The project kicked off in Feb. 2015 with a site visit to the orphanage. At the time, USM’s chapter had five active members, Wing included.

The group took their findings back to campus and set off to plan. But to make all of this happen, the group knew they would first have to grow in numbers.

Sharing the experience from the first visit turned out to be an incredible recruiting tool for the group. Johnas was actually in attendance for one of the first presentations. When he heard about the experience and the group’s desire to make a difference, he decided to join the chapter.

“We’re all very driven by a common goal,” added Johnas. Today, he said the chapter is up to 14 active members.


Funding the project

Planning and installation wasn’t without its challenges -- one of the biggest being funding.

The group estimated that the total cost of the project, including materials and plane tickets, would be around $25,000. Due to the high cost, the group estimated that it would take five years to reach their fundraising goal.

So, the group explored some creative ways to fundraise. Ben Tracy, senior economics major, approached Johnas, his roommate, with some “brilliant” ideas. EWB organized fundraisers at local restaurants and even created a “rent a college student” program.

For seven weekends this past fall, members of the group offered up their assistance to local residents, including tasks such as raking leaves and stacking wood. Through the program, EWB was able to make a dent in their fundraising goal.

And for his efforts, Tracy is now the Chief Financial Officer of USM’s EWB chapter. But the group also received some much-needed help from a well-respected ally over in Guatemala.

After hearing the estimate, Madre Ines Ayau Garcia, the head of Hogar Rafael Ayau, took it upon herself to help defray the cost. With the hopes of keeping the project on schedule, she went to work.

“She did a lot of negotiations for the project knowing it was going to be such a high cost,” said Wing.

After negotiating directly with vendors, Madre Ines was able to knock the total cost down to about $11,000. The savings allowed the group to address the hot water needs of the orphanage in a much timelier manner.

Dr. Carlos Lück, associate professor of electrical engineering and faculty advisor for USM’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders, also mentioned that per EWB guidelines, all equipment required for the project needed to be purchased in Guatemala. The reasoning behind this is to ensure that any maintenance that may be needed can be handled locally, making Madre Ines’ efforts all the more valuable.

“Madre Ines is very well known in Guatemala,” added Wing.

With funding secure, the group embarked on their journey on the 6th of January. But a new challenge arose: actually installing the units.  


Installation and gaining experience

Luckily for the students, two professional engineering mentors came on the trip to provide assistance. One of the mentors is alumnus and Environmental Science and Policy faculty member, Chris Pickles ‘15. Pickles earned a Master of Business Administration at USM and a bachelor’s in civil engineering at Wentworth Institute of Technology.

Geoff Sparrow, director of engineering at Portland-based ReVision Energy, also came along on the journey as a professional mentor. Using his expertise in solar technology, Sparrow had assisted with calculations, background information and assembling of the water heaters since the project was first established.

"Having Geoff and Chris has provided us with the best possible resources available,” said Wing. “With the technical aspects of international development they were able to provide overall guidance and expertise in areas of engineering and construction to help ensure the direction, safety and the quality of the project."

The students and their mentors navigated the facility to install the units. They even scaled the rooftops to complete the installation -- not without some creative thinking, such as the use of a pulley mechanism.

And in any project such as this one, teamwork and good communication were essential. The group hurdled language barriers as they worked with the facilities grounds crew -- the most impressive and skilled crew Johnas ever worked with, according to the senior -- to get the job done.

Once the solar equipment was installed, the students then trained the grounds crew on how to operate and provide maintenance to the units. According to Johnas, the hands-on experience taught them the essentials of solar energy.

“I think the best part about it is that none of us were experts in solar energy, but in our research and our preparation for the trip, we sort of became experts,” Johnas added.


A rewarding experience

As for the reaction of the children and staff members of Hogar Rafael Ayau?

“They were ecstatic,” said Wing. “From the moment we arrived, they knew this was going to be a reality.”

“It’s a huge improvement for them,” added Johnas.

“Someone looking in would say ‘well the students delivered hot water,’ but if you look at what they accomplished, they delivered much more than hot water. They delivered hope,” said Lück.

The project not only benefits the population served by EWB, but it also instills a sense of community service and volunteerism -- a tenet of the EWB program and similar programs, such as Doctors Without Borders. The experience, Lück mentioned, teaches students that there is more to a given profession than just earning a paycheck.

“Students graduate with a broader world view and a broader sense of mission for their profession,” said Lück “It’s not about hot water, it’s about humans reaching humans - delivering hope.” 

The expedition to Guatemala provided Wing, Johnas and the rest of the students with memories and experiences they won’t soon forget.  

“The whole experience was extremely rewarding,” said Wing. “It was great opportunity to pass along the knowledge we learned in class to help create this system.”

“It was also a good, first-hand experience to see how they were living in the orphanage,” mentioned Johnas. “It’s just so rewarding to make a difference in someone's life.”

And the experience is already paying off in terms of employment prospects.

“I think in every interview I’ve had since I’ve added this experience to my resume, it has taken up at least half of the interview,” stated Johnas, who is an intern at Lanco Integrated in Westbrook.

“For me, (the project) has helped me get my feet in the door,” said Wing, who is currently interning for Sappi Fine Paper in Westbrook.

Learning how to manage a project from start to finish, gaining valuable leadership skills and helping the group grow will also stick with Wing.

“Over my time, I was able to meet a lot of great students, a lot of great engineers, and watch students grasp and grow with the project,” said Wing.

“Hunter doesn’t really stop,” added Johnas when commenting on Wing’s contributions to group during his time as president.

Along the way, there were some tense moments regarding funding and reaching deadlines. But for Wing, the end result -- seeing the smiles brimming over the children’s faces -- was definitely worth the stress.

“I’m definitely relieved to be able to go down and get this project done,” he added.

Wing was quick to note that it took contributions from the whole team for the solar hot water project to be a success. He added that everyone, no matter their area of study, was essential in the completion of the task.

“Even though the group is called Engineers Without Borders, it’s really “Anybody Without Borders,” mentioned Wing. “We’re open to all students, and we encourage anybody to join.”

“Engineering is interdisciplinary by nature. It brings together professionals in various fields, be it in finance, sociology or other fields that contribute to the overall mission of the project,” added Lück.

As for what’s next for the group? Wing continues to work with both the Portland, Maine chapter of EWB the national EWB office to help determine the group’s next project. According to Johnas, the group would like to tackle an issue that affects the whole globe, such as easier access to clean water.

And the outgoing president will still be active next year as Wing will help incoming president, Aimee Laplante, transition into the role.

Johnas and Wing did have one more thing to add when it comes to the future of USM’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

“We’re not stopping.”

USM Engineering Students Discuss Service-Learning Project in Guatemala: